KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii – Sun-washed days and gentle breezes. Calm waters crowded with tropical fish, spinner dolphins and humpback whales on winter vacation. Magnificent sunsets framed by coconut palms.
There is a lot to like about Hawaii's Kona Coast, which enjoys this friendly climate because it shelters in the lee of the Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcanos on the west side of the Big Island. But unfortunately – and not surprisingly – there are a lot of people doing the liking these days.
This is a standard stop for Hawaii's burgeoning cruise industry, such that the town of Kailua-Kona, once an unpretentious little burg of rich history and slightly scruffy charm, has descended into cruise-port blight, clogged with souvenir stands selling cheap shell jewelry, T-shirts and Kona coffee gift packs. Up the mountain slope, residential housing is sprouting at an astonishing rate. And the hotels and vacation-rental condos along the water's edge – long a value-priced alternative to the exclusive Kohala Coast resorts to the north – enjoy robust occupancy rates despite the fact that many of them aren't exactly aging gracefully.
Even the 6.7 earthquake that rolled through Kona last Oct. 15, though it opened a few cracks and loosened a few boulders, sent only a slight shudder through the region's appeal.
But none of this should be surprising, for Kona has been beguiling visitors for ages. As far back as 1866, Mark Twain declared it
Today's visitor, however, must be judicious in seeking out Kona's gems, leaving the unwary hordes to endure the traffic jams of Alii Drive, prowl the tacky tourist shops, and crowd onto such overrun beaches as Kahaluu and Magic Sands.
Here are the best offerings of the Kona Coast:
An ancient refuge
Warfare was savage in ancient Hawaii, in that it was commonplace for a victor to exterminate the entire losing side. But some 500 years ago, a burial ground for chiefs was established in a walled compound on the coast, and a prohibition was placed on the shedding of blood within its sanctified confines.
The local populace didn't miss the significance of this, and Puuhonua o Honaunau became a refuge for anyone with a death sentence hanging over his head. All a person had to do was get inside that enclosure – though this was no easy feat.
Today the site is a national historical park, with an imposing Great Wall that dates to about 1550 and an adjacent complex of reconstructed royal buildings. As we walked along the periphery of the refuge, we concluded that a fugitive's best bet was to swim in from the ocean or dash around its extreme edge. The wall is 8 to 10 feet tall and perhaps 17 feet thick, and would present a formidable obstacle with warriors in hot pursuit.
The wall was constructed of lava boulders without the aid of mortar, and it suffered a bit in the October earthquake – but only because an opening in the wall was created for visitors some years ago.
"On both sides of that walkway, portions of the rock have loosened up and it's unstable right now," said Terry Reveira, chief of interpretation. "The base rock pulled away, and a whole section could fall. We're in the process of trying to get that looked at by experts and see what it will take to stabilize it."
In the meantime, visitors can walk to the northern extremity of the wall, where the Hale o Keawe (circa 1650) stands, and enter the enclosure as desperate Hawaiians once did – though in much less haste.
While strolling the grounds, be sure to look for Hawaiian green sea turtles in the cove that was the chiefs' canoe landing (they camouflage with the boulders) and also watch for saffron finches – with feathers of brilliant yellow and green – in the shrubbery of the parking lot.
Today's visitors aren't allowed to eat anything within the Place of Refuge, but a wonderful picnic ground can be reached on a short dirt road to the south. Few people venture here, resulting in a peaceful setting of picnic tables in the sand beneath shady palms, and tidepools on a vast lava plain. (This is also a great spot to watch the sun set.) A historic trail can be hiked along the coast to the south.
Holualoa, a quaint little village just up the mountain slope from Kailua-Kona, was settled in the 19th century by immigrant farmers from Japan, China, Portugal and America. They were attracted to its rich volcanic soil and a climate that was hospitable to coffee, citrus fruit, sugar cane and the raising of livestock.
Today, buildings that were homes and businesses in the early 1900s are studios and galleries for a community of artists. The structures are often as intriguing as the art itself, with bold paint jobs, corrugated tin roofs, well-scuffed wooden floors and sliding windows that overlook the ocean far below.
"This was the home of a Japanese dentist in the '20s," said Sunny Pauole as she painted a modern oil in her Pauole gallery. The walls held paintings in vivid colors of island scenes and flowers, as well as koa wood canoe paddles polished to a high gleam.
The Holualoa Ukulele Gallery, meanwhile, is housed in the former post office – it still has weathered post office boxes on the exterior wall. Owner Sam Rosen and other local craftsmen make the instruments on display here, and he'll also teach you how to strum a few chords.
"It's a happy instrument. There are no sad songs on a ukulele," Rosen said, noting that jam sessions convene here every Wednesday evening if anyone wants to stop by to play or just listen.
Ululani gallery used to be Ito Garage in the 1930s. In that unlikely setting are displayed whimsical paintings of fish and barnyard animals, all beautifully framed. Another gallery, Hawaii Colors, shows impressionistic island scenes painted by Darrell Hill – plantation cottages, beach landscapes, portraits.
But the finest gallery in town is directly behind that old post office. Dovetail exhibits exquisite wood furniture, ceramic pots, paintings, jewelry and sculpture, the furniture and ceramics by owner Gerald Ben, other works by local artists.
For sustenance on a visit here, stop by the Holuakoa Cafe, a locals hangout with superb coffee brewed from local beans and some tasty breakfast and lunch selections.
Taking the plunge
A fascinating underwater garden of coral and rainbow-hued marine life lies just off many of Hawaii's coasts, but getting tossed about in ocean currents or banging the shins in the shore break can be intimidating to people who aren't particularly strong swimmers.
The beach at Honaunau, just south of famed Kealakekua Bay – where British Capt. James Cook was killed by natives in 1779 – solves both concerns. It isn't really a beach, more of a black-lava shelf (a sunbathing griddle for some). But at one spot along its edge there are two natural stone steps down into the water, which makes getting in and out a snap. Further, the water is usually placid here, as well as warm and relatively shallow.
Welcome to the aquarium. There are many varieties of tropical fish here, but the darling of this cove is the bright-yellow tang, which swims in schools. Because of the mild ocean conditions and abundance of fish, this might be one of the best shore diving spots in Hawaii.
Another way to get a glimpse of this island's underwater wonderland is to take a commercial snorkeling excursion.
One morning we set out on Fair Wind's 55-foot power catamaran, the Hula Kai, which employs hydrofoil technology to blunt the roughness of the ocean and get to dive sites a little quicker than conventional snorkel boats. It glided out of Keauhou Bay and headed to two prime coves to the south, Alahaka and Palikoholo.
Flitting among the ochre-colored florets of coral were more schools of yellow tang, as well as Moorish idols, a fish with bands of black, white and gold and a trailing dorsal streamer. Another highlight was the black triggerfish, with its feathery fins and neon-purple piping.
Guides provide a layer of security on a commercial snorkel outing – because they double as lifeguards. When an older woman began to founder in the chop a good distance from the boat, a crewman grabbed a float, plunged into the water and reached her in about four powerful strokes.
Life on board this excursion is a bit softer than the standard tour.
Breakfast included frittatas cooked in muffin cups, island fruit and coffee grown on the Kona farm of Fair Wind's owners. After the second and final snorkel spot, a gas grill was fired up in the stern, and flames rose to lap at half-pound Angus hamburgers, strips of teriyaki chicken and veggie burgers. Beer and wine were available for purchase.
On the way back, deck umbrellas were unfurled for shade and the sound system played such soothing tunes as "Moonglow" and the late Bruddah Iz's "Over the Rainbow."
"The locations we go to are for snorkel and dive enthusiasts," said boat captain Kurt Bell. "There's a little more swimming involved, a little more adventure. When conditions are right, we'll go into a lava tube and an underwater arch." (Alas, it was too rough for that on our day.)
When missionaries arrived in Hawaii in the early 19th century, they built their churches with the most convenient materials at hand – lava rocks, mortar made with crushed coral, beams fashioned from ohia wood, pews crafted out of the now-precious koa. The churches have held up well over the years; some suffered cracks in the October earthquake but remain stable and open, with reinforcement work planned.
Few visitors fail to spot the tiny St. Peter's Church at water's edge just south of Kailua-Kona, but three other historic churches are also worthy of a visit:
– Mokuaikaua Church. In the heart of Kailua-Kona, this is where the first Christian services were held in the Hawaiian islands when missionaries arrived from Boston in 1820. The current building, constructed 17 years later, is supported by 50-foot ohia pillars.
This is the real-life church on which a segment of James Michener's "Hawaii" novel was based, and by perusing the plaques in the sanctuary and a small museum in the rear, you can match up the real-life names with the fictional characters of the story.
(Across the street from the church, the Hulihee Palace, a former governor's residence built in 1838, fared much less well in the quake. It suffered severe damage and has been closed indefinitely for restoration work, according to docent Kahea Beckley.)
– St. Benedict Catholic Church in South Kona is more commonly called the Painted Church. At the turn of the 20th century, Father John Berchmans Velge of Belgium painted elaborate biblical scenes on the interior walls of the small church. The ceiling was painted to resemble sky, while the tops of support posts sprout palm fronds.
– Kahikolu Congregational Church was built in 1824 on the Kealakekua peninsula, but was later moved up the mountainside. It was closed on the weekday we visited, but a caretaker graciously let us inside to see the pews made of finely polished koa. Today's artisans pay as much as $30 a board foot for that wood.
IF YOU GO
PUUHONUA O HONAUNAU: The national historical park is open daily, year round, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Its visitor center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance fee is $5 per vehicle. Information: www.nps.gov/puho; (808) 328-2288. Tip: This park is right next to the prime snorkel spot of Honaunau, which has only a few parking places. Hang onto your national park receipt, which is good for seven days; you can park your car in the national park lot and easily walk to the snorkel site.
HOLUALOA GALLERIES: Dovetail, (808) 322-4046; Hawaii Colors, (808) 324-1590; Holualoa Ukuklele Gallery, (808) 324-4100; Pauole (808) 989-2180; Ululani, (808) 322-7733.
HULA KAI SNORKEL CRUISE: The morning excursion, which runs from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and includes breakfast and lunch on board, costs
$149 per person (minimum age is 8 years). Fair Wind also offers a snorkel trip to Kealakekua Bay that is more family oriented, priced at $115 for adults, $69 for ages 4 to 12, $29 for age 3 and under. www.fair-wind; (800) 677-9461.
MISSION CHURCHES: Mokuaikaua Church, 75-5713 Alii Drive, Kailua-Kona; St. Benedict Church, 84-5140 Painted Church Road, Honaunau; Kahikolu Congregational Church, on Napoopoo Road, Napoopoo.
LODGING: The Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort has replaced the tired, old Kona Surf, and there's no mistaking its best asset: location, on a black lava point on Keauhou Bay's southern lip. The most unfortunate casualty of the transformation was the hotel's saltwater swimming pool, a refreshing plunge that was located on a scenic promontory overlooking ocean and bay. It was said to be a maintenance headache, particularly in winter, and was converted to a vast slab of patio.
The Sheraton now has the requisite resort water park (in another location), with water slide and sandy lagoon. The hotel offers generous kamaaina (local resident) rates – less than half the lowest published rate of $350 per night – and as a result, that pool can get a little raucous on the weekends, when all the cousins and the aunts descend on the place. www.sheratonkeauhou.com; (888) 488-3535, (808) 930-4900. Other lodging options on the Kona Coast include rental condos and coffee country bed-and-breakfast inns.
DINING: Some of our worst dining in Kona was accompanied by an ocean view. Such restaurants (notably Huggo's) are assured a steady stream of tourist business. The establishments tucked away in nondescript shopping centers have to work a little harder to pull people in.
You can't go wrong at O's Bistro, which showcases local ingredients in creative preparations. One pasta dish, for example, is a deconstructed tuna casserole, featuring seasoned, wok-seared strips of fresh ahi tuna, orecchiette shell pasta in a light cream sauce with shiitake mushrooms and scallions, all of it crowned with some thinly sliced and lightly fried onions ($24). There is laudable pricing on the wine list; one tier lists more than a dozen selections, from all over the globe, each priced at $35 a bottle. In the Crossroads Shopping Center. www.osbistro.com; (808) 327-6565.
For exceptional Japanese fare, head to Kenichi Pacific, in the Keauhou Shopping Center. If so inclined, you can readily create a small-plates dinner from appetizers – notably the lobster summer rolls and Dungeness crab cakes – tempura selections and some delectable sushi rolls that are prepared to order. Main courses feature fusion preparations of ono, mahi-mahi, ahi and other local fishes. (808) 322-6400.
INFORMATION: One of the best guidebooks for exploring the Kona Coast (and all of this island) is Ray Riegert's "Hidden Big Island of Hawaii" (Ulysses Press; $13.95). The Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau site, www.bigisland.org, lists information on events, golf, arts and other attractions on the island.